World junior tourney a starring point

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:25 AM ET

CALGARY - You can be excused for being unfamiliar with most of the names unveiled Monday as invitees for Hockey Canada’s national junior selection camp.

You’re not alone.

Even if you’ve got tickets for the sold-out event, it’s highly unlikely the average fan would recognize more than a handful of names on the roster. If that.

That’s not just because eight junior-eligible Canadians are still toiling in the NHL or because only three players are returning from last year’s silver-medal winning squad.

It’s just the way this tourney generally works.

But make no mistake, by the time this holiday showdown wraps up, we’ll all be experts — calling them chokers if they lose or singing their praises if they win. We’ll debate which goaltender should start in the medal round and we’ll contemplate who should be selected if it comes down to a shootout.

That’s what this tourney does to — and for — Canadians.

Bolstered by TSN’s world-class coverage, a roomful of relative unknowns seize the spotlight by turning themselves into household names — some for a few weeks and some for a lifetime.

“That’s sort of been the neat thing,” said Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, who has seen this two-week evolution play itself out for decades.

“These guys come in and they’re stars on their junior team but when they get here, no one has heard of them. No one had really heard of Jarome Iginla when he scored that big goal in Boston (in 1996) and was traded for Joe Nieuwendyk. All of a sudden he became a big name in Calgary and then in the NHL.

“Those types of stories take off from this tournament. There are so many eyes on this tournament and so much coverage in print and on TV. They become national role models through two weeks of the world juniors.”

So, whether you are one of the fortunate ones to have ducats or not, don’t think for a second the anonymity of this year’s participants will last. Ten straight appearances in the gold medal game tends to help build momentum for an event that has been TSN’s ratings king.

Every Christmas, Canadians have been conditioned to channel their passion towards the tourney where our national game gets tested every year.

“You know what’s happened the last two,” said Nicholson, alluding to two-straight heartbreaking silvers.

“Winning silver in any other country people would be doing cartwheels, but here there’s a negative slant.

“By the time this is all over, they’re all going to be heroes back home. And there are going to be a lot of them in three or four years on the NHL stage doing very well.”

The list of former Canadian world junior alumni reads like a list of who’s who in hockey, and every one of the 41 players invited to the Dec. 10 camp in Calgary knows it.

They, of course, all want to be the next big thing.

And while there is the odd player like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who makes it straight to the NHL despite being cut from Team Canada’s camp a year earlier, the reality is nothing can give a young junior players’ career a bump quite like this tourney.

Especially when it’s in your home and native land.

“It changed everything,” said returning forward Quinton Howden when asked how last year’s experience in Buffalo altered his life.

“Anybody who plays for Team Canada is known. This is one of the biggest tournaments in the world. It was something hard to swallow but even losing last year helps me out in life moving forward. You learn some lessons from it and it will help me this year. Talk to any alumni, and they’ll tell you it’s the greatest feeling in the world putting that leaf over your chest.”

The second-best feeling may be watching this all unfold live. Something legions of Albertans will do whether or not any names ring a bell just yet.


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